Ukraine’s president has called on the West to impose a blanket travel ban on Russians, an idea that has found support among some European states but angered Moscow which pressed on with a fierce military offensive in eastern Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s idea looked likely to divide the European Union, where differences on how to deal with Moscow have long persisted between some eastern and western members.
It came as Ukraine halted flows of Russian oil to some eastern European countries due to a sanctions-related payment issue.
Zelensky’s call for a one-year travel ban and the apparent expulsion of Russians living in the West so that they could live “in their own world until they change their philosophy” was made in an interview with the Washington Post.
He complained that sanctions imposed so far on Russia to punish it for invading his country on February 24 were too weak.
“Whichever kind of Russian ... make them go to Russia,” Zelensky was quoted as saying. “They’ll understand then. They’ll say, ‘This (war) has nothing to do with us. The whole population can’t be held responsible, can it?’ It can.”
The president was quoted as saying that the ban should also extend to Russians who had fled since the start of what Moscow calls a “special military operation” because they disagreed with President Vladimir Putin.
His remarks stand in stark contrast to the first days of Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine when Zelensky reached out to Russia-based Kremlin critics, in Russian.
The Kremlin dismissed Zelensky’s words as irrational, saying that Europe would ultimately have to decide if it wanted to pay the bills for his “whims”.
“The irrationality of thinking in this case is off the charts,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “This can only be viewed extremely negatively. Any attempt to isolate Russians or Russia is a process that has no prospects.”
He alluded to events in the run-up to and during World War II.
“In their unfriendliness, many of these countries slip into forgetfulness,” he said. “And they resort to statements that we heard from several European countries in the centre of Europe 80 years ago.”
Other senior Russian officials have questioned the legality such restrictions, suggesting they would infringe Russians’ rights.
There was support though from Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, who said she thought it was time for the EU to stop issuing visas to Russians.
“Visiting #Europe is a privilege, not a human right,” she tweeted.
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev accused the Estonian prime minister of making “Nazi” statements, but then went on social media to quote an old Soviet saying, telling her: “The fact that you are free is not your achievement but our oversight.”
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Monday that she also favoured an EU-wide curb on Russian tourism and that EU leaders were likely to discuss the issue at their next summit.
“It is not right that while Russia is conducting an aggressive and cruel attack in Europe, Russians can live a kind of normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists,” Marin told Finnish public broadcaster Yle.
While Finland still issues Schengen visas to Russian tourists, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania no longer do.
The Schengen area comprises 26 European countries among which people can travel freely without presenting passports.
Latvia has said it also favours an EU-wide ban.
Other countries which have traditionally enjoyed closer ties to Russia such as Hungary are, however, likely to oppose an EU ban.
Moreover, the European Commission has questioned its feasibility, saying that certain categories such as family members, journalists and dissidents should always be granted visas.
The French defence ministry told AFP on Monday that Russian nationals cannot visit the Chateau de Vincennes in Paris, a major tourist attraction.
However, after media coverage and comment, the French ministry contacted AFP yesterday to say the castle guards had “indiscriminately applied a rule established in February concerning all military installations”.
“This rule cannot be applied in the same way for strategic sites and for sites accessible to the public, such as museums,” a spokesman said.
The ministry said security staff would now be informed of the distinction “to avoid any further incidents of this kind”.
Russia meanwhile unleashed ground forces, air strikes and artillery in a grinding offensive designed to complete its capture of eastern Ukraine.
However, Kyiv said its troops were putting up fierce resistance and largely holding the line.
Heavy fighting was reported yesterday in frontline towns near the eastern city of Donetsk, where Ukrainian officials said Russian troops were launching waves of attacks as they tried to expand their control of the industrialised Donbas region.
The Ukrainian military said it had repelled ground assaults in the direction of the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
Russia gave a different assessment.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that his forces had captured a factory for Moscow on the edge of the eastern town of Soledar.
Other Russian-backed forces said they were in the process of “clearing out” the heavily fortified village of Pisky.
And Russian media reported that a group of mercenaries from the Wagner Group had dug in near the city of Bakhmut.
Reuters could not verify either side’s battlefield accounts.
British military intelligence, which is helping Ukraine, said Russia’s push towards Bakhmut had been its most successful operation in the Donbas in the last 30 days, but that it had still only managed to advance around 10km (six miles).
Russian forces in other areas had not gained more than 3km over the same period, British military intelligence said.
Russia has said it plans to seize full control of the Donbas on behalf of pro-Kremlin separatist forces, while Russian-installed officials in parts of southern Ukraine have said they plan to press ahead with referendums to join Russia.
Ukraine, which says Russia is prosecuting an unprovoked imperial-style war of aggression, is banking on sophisticated Western-supplied rocket and artillery systems to degrade Russian supply lines and logistics.
In the Crimean Peninsula, whose annexation by Russia in 2014 was followed by separatist seizures of parts of the Donbas, an explosion at the Saky military air base killed one person and injured five, local Russian authorities said.
The Russian defence ministry said earlier the blast had been a detonation of aviation ammunition, not the result of an attack.
Children play at the symbolic cemetery of cars shot by Russian troops, some painted by local artists, in Irpin, Ukraine.